The Big Misconception about Progressive Overload

June is approaching, and you decide you want to get a glorious tan for the upcoming summer. So on Monday, you head outside to catch some rays and lay for twenty minutes on your front and another twenty minutes on your back. The next morning, you notice that your skin is a little pink, so you decide to take a rest from tanning on this day. The day after that, however, you’re right back to the same 20-minute per side sunbath. Being the disciplined person you are, you decide to continue that exact pattern for the end of the week. At the end of the week, you’re a pleasant tan color, which inspires you to carry this same routine throughout the rest of the month.

Here’s my question: how dark are you at the end of the month? I bet the majority of people say that you’d be really, really dark. But the fact of the matter is, you’d actually be the same shade you were at the end of the first week. This makes perfect sense, though; your skin will only become as dark as the stress placed upon it from the exposure of the sun. If we got darker each time we took a step into the sun, we’d all be burnt to a crisp! It is not the accumulated amount of exposure that causes you to get darker, but the exposure that is longer and more intense.

This principle follows suit with exercise; you will only change and adapt if there is proper and continual stress placed upon the body. What I’m talking about here is the principle of progressive overload. This means continually increasing the demand placed on the body over time to see muscular size and strength increases. The body is lazy and will not adapt and become stronger just because you tell it to. It will only do so unless it thinks it has to. The reason why muscles adapt when placing stress on them is because it’s preparing itself to handle that same stress when (or if) it happens again.

Now, there are three different variables of progressive overload that you can manipulate in order to see such strength gains each week. Those variables include:

  1. Heaviness (weight of the load).
  2. Volume (sets and reps).
  3. Frequency (the number of times a muscle is worked in a given week).

Fundamentally, implementing progressive overload is a matter of increasing one of these three variables over a period of time. However, as you increase one variable, you’ll probably have to decrease another. For example, if you increase the weight of the load on a given lift, you’ll obviously have to decrease the volume (sets and reps) and frequency (number of times that muscle is worked), or else risk burning out and/or experiencing a major injury. Over time, these three variables must be increased as you become more experienced and build overall strength and work capacity.

Here’s the problem with this principle: your strength progression throughout training is not linear. These adaptations happen in waves, and as you get stronger, it gets harder and harder to break through plateaus. This is why you may not get stronger each week, and eventually after going for heavier and heavier weights you notice only slight increases every so often. It’s the unfortunate principle of diminishing returns. A novice lifter, a.k.a. an unadapted person, will experience extreme strength gains right out the gate. This is because a person new to training is so unadapted that any sort of physical stress placed upon his or her body will initiate enough of a response to force the body to become stronger. For a novice, simply doing jumping jacks will probably increase his bench press, but that doesn’t mean doing jumping jacks is a smart strength program to increase your one-rep max. Now, for you veteran lifters, these increases are much harder to come by. Remember, stress is the only thing that causes an adaptation. For those of you who continue to dumbbell row the same 25lb weight each week like you’re working the cord of a stubborn lawn mower will only get better at just that – rowing 25lb dumbbells.  Going back to the tanning analogy, that’s no different than laying out in the sun for exactly 20 minutes per side each and every day, and expecting to become darker.

For those of you that have serious goals coming to this gym, it is imperative to do what you can to become stronger. When you become stronger many other factors will follow, whether it be fat loss, increased athletic ability, or just a higher fitness level. This is why my fellow trainers and I, here at State of Fitness, always drive and motivate you to go heavier or do more reps; because we want to see you succeed and reach your fitness goals, and that starts with getting stronger. So don’t be afraid to increase your weights or reps on all your lifts, don’t get comfortable with a routine. Instead work as hard as you can to achieve your goals in a smart way. We want to see you reach them as much as you do, and it all starts with doing what you can today to better yourself for the long run.

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